Pesticides in tea: unearthing the facts

Toxic tea pesticides have been the hot topic of conversation in the press of late. And with good reason! Consumers want to know what’s in the tea that they’re drinking. Fortunately, Australia has incredibly strict quarantine rules, which means that Nerada can produce fresh, premium black tea without the need for pesticides. Indeed, Australia doesn’t have to contend with the same pests, such as the red spider mite, tea mosquito bug, mealy bug and other nasties that attack tea plants in other countries.

As a single origin estate, Nerada sources all of our black tea from our Malanda tea plantation in the Atherton Tablelands, in north Queensland. We are proud of the fact that we are pesticide-free, as well as Rainforest Alliance certified and we continue to work hard on our environmental footprint to bring our consumers the freshest tea available on the planet!

Other countries are not as fortunate as Australia, which impacts how the tea is produced. Pesticides are utilised in many tea-producing locations to fight the bugs and insects that destroy the tea plants.

Why is there a need for pesticides?

Tea is generally grown in a relatively steady microclimate and provides a regular food supply for insect and mite pests. Each tea-growing country has its own distinctive insect and mite pests, diseases and weeds. However, several of them are common to many countries, including:

  • Sucking pests – such as Tea Mosquito Bug, Mealy Bug and Black Citrus Aphid and Thrips
  • Lepidopteran pests – such as tea tortricids, leafroller caterpillars and Red Borer
  • Coleopteran pests – such as the Shoot Hole Borer, Cockchafer beetle/white grub
  • Mite pests – such as Red Spider Mite, Scarlet Mite, Purple Mite and Yellow Tea Mite
  • Soil pests – termites and leaf miners

Globally there are 1031 species of arthropods associated with tea mono-culture, which can be attacked by nearly 250 insect species.  Strict Australian quarantine laws mean that we’ve not experienced any of these pests in our own plantations, but other countries are not as lucky.

Tea is grown across 4.72 million hectares in more than 34 countries across Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Oceania to produce 5.68 million tonnes of the final product annually (2017). The national economy of many of these countries is largely dependent upon its production, so insect and mite pests can be devastating, causing on average an 11% to 55% yield loss and costing up to $1 billion USD. In some cases, yield loss can be 100% and tea producers will do whatever it takes to protect their tea industries.

Because of these losses, pesticides are often commonly used to control many of these pests and to help protect the plantations, leading to other environmental impacts. The level of pesticides used varies by country, and is impacted by their local environment. Some countries such as Sri Lanka and Kenya will use weaker pesticides, which show no residues in their teas. Additionally, if more pesticides and fertilisers are used, the plant’s natural ability to fight pests and absorb nutrients from the ground is affected.

This pesticide use has meant that many importing countries have maximum levels of allowable residual pesticides in tea (MRLs). The residual is the chemicals in the pesticides absorbed and stored by the plant, which in turn infuses into the brewed tea. America and the EU have the largest amount of allowable pesticides residues in tea – Australia the least. However, many tea producers use a blend of teas from many different countries, making it difficult to ascertain the exact amount of pesticides in each tea.

CBC News in Canada conducted an investigation to test the pesticide levels in some supermarket tea brands. They found that more than half of all of the teas that were tested had levels of pesticide residue that were above what was accepted legally. A wide variety of chemicals were found in eight of the 10 teas that were tested – and one contained more than 22 different types of chemical pesticides.

What about the use of herbicides?

At Nerada we do occasionally use small quantities of herbicides on our plantation. They target weeds in the pruned fields until the bushes have fully leafed up, creating a canopy to stop the sunlight getting into the ground. Traditionally, we prune one third of the estates every year in the winter months, enough to rejuvenate the bush – letting the plant produce new branches from which new vigorous buds form. Our Plantation Director Tony Poyner notes that, “the more pesticides and fertilisers used, the less effective is the plant’s natural ability to fight pests and absorb nutrients from the ground.”

We are currently trialling a two-year pruning cycle instead of three-year pruning cycles to help reduce the weed problems that all estates have to contend with. To date, the two-year pruning trials have shown great promise, with much less weed strike, due to the plants leafing up much faster, so we will be extending this trial in the coming months.  We are also at the final stage of modifying a mulch spreader to enable us to put our waste tea back onto the plantation as a weed suppressant; this will also further improve soil health.

So next time you pass through Australian quarantine at the airport, take a moment to stop and reflect on what a great job is being done to stop these insects being brought into Australia. It means that we can proudly bring you pesticide-free, fresh Australian black tea.  Perhaps it’s time to take another look and think about the origin of your tea?